The Last Lead: Aging Out of Climbing ~DICK DORWORTH  August 17, 2017.


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Author Dick Dorworth, ~ 10 years ago, topping out the Mountaineer’s Route on the Elephant’s Perch in Idaho’s Sawtooth Range for the last time. Photo by Dave Hart


It had to happen. The signs leading up to the last lead had been clear and chronic for several years, but with a mind fueled by denial that was stronger than an aging body trapped in reality, I had been able to ignore one of life’s more stubborn realities so poetically expressed by Robert Frost: “The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.”

Though I was nearly 30 before I started to climb, climbing immediately became and then remained integral to my life for the next 40-plus years—vital as personal endeavor, as a profession, as inspiration for my writing, and vital because it let me be part of a culture in which I was comfortable, at home, and a member of the tribe. Every climber with a decade or three of significant time spent moving up and down rock and ice and snow features—20 to 29,000 feet high—will recognize the attraction (addiction?) of this lifestyle, known to be sometimes fatal.

Though never—in morning or afternoon—able to climb at the technical standard of, say, my old climbing partner Hermann Goellner (who always took the harder leads), I climbed as well as I ever could into my 50s before signs of “afternoon” began to appear. The first sign was major back surgery for a disease physically unrelated to climbing (though it’s possible that disease was picked up in Tibet or China or elsewhere during a climbing trip). The second sign, shortly afterwards, was when my shoulders ached and wouldn’t work properly, an irritation solved by a horse liniment called DMSO, illegal for human use at the time but readily available, like so many illegal substances, to those who need them.

Then, on Memorial Day, when I was 60, I tore my Achilles tendon without completely severing it. I avoided surgery, just barely, but was on crutches with a removable Velcro cast for several weeks. I hired a physical therapist and followed her regimen to the letter, pumped iron, and worked out in a gym nearly every day, all summer long. The somewhat ironic result was that by Labor Day when I returned to the stone, my aging body was in the best climbing shape it had enjoyed in several years, and my climbing improved. Another consequence of the injury and long rehab was that I was unable to work at my long-time summer job as a climbing guide for Exum Mountain Guides in the Teton mountains, a significant financial hit somewhat softened by working as a newspaper reporter.

There’s nothing like recovering from an injury to make one better appreciate the delights of physical activity, and that autumn’s rock climbing, the next winter’s ice climbing and the “afternoon” knowledge of now being in my 60s convinced me that whatever time remained would be better spent pursuing the personal satisfactions of climbing for myself rather than the illusory security and real satisfaction of being paid to take other people climbing. As a Buddhist, I tried to find the middle way and just work as a guide part-time, but only full-time guides can live on Guides’ Hill in the Tetons. And that meant either spending most of my part-time guiding wages for rent in the ridiculously inflated Jackson Hole rental market or embracing a dirtbag, car-dwelling lifestyle that I knew all too well from earlier climbing days. Dirtbagging for climbing had been both acceptable and enjoyable for me, but for guiding it was neither. My guiding days were over.

For the next ten years, into my early 70s, I climbed hard and made some of the most enjoyable climbs of my life, both on the crags and in the mountains. During those years my hands gradually began to look and feel even older than the rest of my body as the signature curlicues and protuberances and aches and pains of Dupuytren’s contracture arrived. Its contributing factors include Dutch ancestry, drinking alcohol, and simple aging, each of which describes me even though I’ve not had a drink or other recreational drug in 30 years. But before that it was a different story. As it became gradually impossible to straighten my fingers or place a hand flat against a smooth surface, I adapted.

The old hands continued to climb a bit less than as well as ever…until one day when I was 72 and leading a route I’d done many times—Kevin Pogue’s typically well-bolted (some say over-bolted), beautiful 5.10b Mantle Dynamics at Idaho’s Castle Rocks. The strangest thing happened. As I was mantling the crux move and inspiration for the route’s name, with my body and brain filled as usual with the bliss molecule anandamide (the human hormone equivalent of tetrahydrocannabinol or THC (see “The Alchemy of Action” by Doug Robinson) and completely enjoying the present moment of the climb, both hands suddenly quit functioning, and feeling in my right hand completely vanished. In that instant both my hands changed from tools of controlled precision to claws of insensitive clumsiness. I managed to make the move and, after a rest and vigorous shake out, finish the climb. At the top I was unable to make a fist, but, as so often happens in life, habit obscured clear evaluation of a new reality and I began the rappel down.


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